Rufus Estes 1857 - 19??
Chicken potpie, tomato chutney, stuffed eggplant, huckleberry cake; the recipes for these mouthwatering dishes are included in one of the earliest known cookbooks authored by a black man. Today’s post honors the man behind those dishes – Rufus Estes – and his cookbook “Rufus Estes Good Things to Eat”.
Rufus Estes was born a slave in Tennessee in 1857. The plantation master owned his mother in addition to his eight siblings. Rufus spent his early childhood years on the plantation learning to carry water and tend cattle. At the age of ten, Estes, along with his mother and siblings, were able to leave the plantation in Murray County and move to Nashville. The family relocation allowed Rufus his first opportunity to attend school.
Estes’ childhood was not exceptionally pleasant or filled with fun. When two older brothers became casualties of the Civil War, Rufus was forced to accept the responsibility of caring for his mother. In order to earn money, he carried hot food to field laborers, worked with a restaurant keeper and once again tended cattle.
At the age of twenty-six, Estes was able to secure employment with the Pullman Service. This job began his journey into the world of food and food preparation. His work on the rail afforded him the opportunity to provide service to Presidents Cleveland and Harrison, Adelina Patti and Princess Eulalie of Spain.
Rufus self-published his cookbook at the age of fifty-four. His book provides a peek into his life through selected recipes and special hints for preparation. Perusing the cookbook allows the reader to discover everyday dishes that were served to family and friends as well as view those saved for the most distinguished guests.
Estes’ recipes are not fashioned in traditional cookbook style, rather ingredients and suggested amounts are provided in the form of a short paragraph, allowing for his collection to be viewed as an inspiration for personal interpretation rather than a step-by-step guide. His book is a treasure and one worth a place in every chef’s library.
Inspired to give a recipe a try? Begin with Estes’ Stuffed Eggplant: Wash a large eggplant, cut in halves the long way and scoop the inside out with a teaspoon, leaving each shell empty, but unbroken. Cook the inside portion in one-half cup of water then press through a strainer and mix with one-half cup of breadcrumbs, one rounding tablespoon of butter and season with salt and pepper. The shells should lie in salt and water after scraping, and when ready to fill them wipe them dry and pack with filling. Scatter fine crumbs over the top, dot with butter and bake twenty minutes.